Friday, November 5, 2010

Under A Red Sky

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania
by Haya Leah Molnar

320 pages
Farrar Straus Giroux

Publisher's description:

Eva Zimmermann is eight years old, and she has just discovered she is Jewish. Such is the life of an only child living in postwar Bucharest, a city that is changing in ever more frightening ways. Eva’s family, full of eccentric and opinionated adults, will do absolutely anything to keep her safe—even if it means hiding her identity from her. With razor-sharp depictions of her animated relatives, Haya Leah Molnar’s memoir of her childhood captures with touching precocity the very adult realities of living behind the iron curtain.

My comments:

Aside from poetry, memoirs may be the most slippery of the nonfiction genres. James Frey's embellished truths and outright lies may have been relatively easy to sniff out in modern America, but who's to know how much of Eva Zimmerman/Haya Leah Molnar's childhood in 1950s Romania is true? She is upfront about the challenges in piecing a book together from her memories in her author's note at the beginning of the book. "The story is filtered through my memory," she writes, and also, "this is not a journalist's rendition of historical events but my personal story about growing up." Some names have been changed to protect people's privacy, and some conversations have been re-imagined, but the "essence" is true.

Her candor is evident throughout her story, which has no clear villains and few hugely dramatic events. Instead, she relies on the color provided by her family members (she grows up as the only child in a house filled with adults) and the quietly dramatic revelations that unfold over time. If there is a villain in the story, then it is the unseen, uncaring government bureaucracy which looms as a constant threat to her family's well-being.

The trials of Eva's childhoods include many that most anyone can identify with, like trying to fit in at school when you are different, getting along with family members who can be affectionate but rude, frustration at not understanding religion or your parents and worrying when your parents are unemployed. Others, like not being allowed to leave the country and not being allowed to take your possessions when you are allowed to leave, may tap in to the imaginations of those who read to experience circumstances far removed from their own.

Eva's father was a filmmaker and photographer, and several of his family photographs appear in a section towards the back of the book, strengthening her account. She doesn't just include them as window-dressing, but ingeniously incorporates them fully into her memories, telling the stories of how the photographs came to be so that when I saw the pictures, I said, for instance, "Aha! That is how she looked on her first day or school!"

I felt that the story ended a little too abruptly with the family's arrival in Israel. There are photographs of Eva's parents' vacation in their first car, and a self-portrait of her father as they immigrate to America. However, I was disappointed to find that the stories behind these photographs are not included in the book. Perhaps a second volume that covers her life in Israel and America is in the works? It's one that I would find worth reading.

Your comments?

No comments:

Post a Comment